The United Nations secretary general, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, is to travel to Malawi this weekend to discuss with the country’s president, Mr. Bingu wa Mutharika, among other issues, the 14 year sentencing of a homosexual couple, a sentence which Mr. Ban Ki-moon has described as “violating human rights principles that ban both discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, as well as the criminalization of sexual acts between consenting adults”.
The conviction, which dates back to the colonial era laws, has predictably caused shock and outrage to ripple across the western world, with both the UN and the ‘liberal-minded-21st –century-populace’ praying that there will be a repeal of Mr. Steven Monjeza’s and Mr. Tiwonge Chimbalanga’s harsh and discriminatory sentence and for such codes to be reformed. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navi Pillay, called for an annulment of the conviction in a press conference, as well as expressing concern that if a law like Malawi’s regarding sexual orientation were to be replicated around the world, millions of consenting couples would be criminals and their identity stigmatized.
Malawi, a deeply religious nation, 80% Christian, Roman Catholic Church and the Central Africa Presbyterian Church. Malawi is one of the most under-developed and densely populated countries in the world, where life expectancy is low and infant mortality high and where HIV/AIDS is rife. Given the situation in Malawi, it comes as little surprise that homophobia is rife in Malawi and the general consensus is that homosexuality is wrong. Because of these attitudes both the UN and gay rights activists are working against a ‘toxic brew’ of impediments to changing attitudes and laws on homosexuality in Malawi. Although this hypothesis can be related to much of Africa where Ms. Pillay’s concerns that similar situations may be replicated, may be true. Although it is arguably unlikely that the 14-year-sentences will be granted to same sex couples in the western world and increasingly in many developing nations where homosexuality is becoming accepted.
Ms. Pillay continued that the issues concerning the sentencing of Mr. Monjeza and Mr. Chimbalanga in Malawi were a “question of human rights” and not one of “history, geography or disparate cultures”. On the surface, then yes, sentencing two men to 14 years of ‘hard labor’ for merely having an engagement ceremony is undoubtedly a question of human rights. But contrary to Ms Pillay’s sentiment that the problem is not one of “history, geography or disparate cultures”, if we are to understand the reasons behind such a consensual negative view of homosexuality, then an understanding of Malawi’s complex historical, political and religious roots need to be addressed, and by doing so will give the UN, gay rights campaigners and the dismayed and angered people, a greater chance to conquer such antiquated and discriminatory laws.
In 2007 Malawi admitted that “AIDS was one of its biggest challenges”. AIDS is commonly perceived as being related to homosexuality in Malawi, hence the stigmatization of homosexual people and extensive objections to tolerating same-sex couples. Although in reality, in Africa as a whole there is a general prejudice against wearing a condom, which essentially stems from men wanting to be ‘masculine’, which is arguably an underlying result of the “emasculation” of men in Africa during years of colonialization and exploitation from the west. Consequently both women and men are exposed to great risk of contracting HIV, and this reluctance to practice safe sex is breeding grounds for the disease to spread. The Guardian newspaper summed the situation in Africa up well by stating, ”A crisis of masculinity underlies much of the hysterical rhetoric around homosexuality”.
Furthering the complex issues surrounding the ‘masculinity’ of men influencing an intolerance towards homosexuality, is that fathering a child, not just in Malawi, but in many other African nations, is seen as an expression of a man’s ‘manliness’. Unlike in the west where sex and conceiving a child has become for much of the time separated, in many parts of Africa including Malawi, the two are intrinsically linked. Not only does this result in Malawi being densely populated, but it also deepens the alienation towards gay couples, whose ‘unnatural’ sexual exploits can obviously not produce a child.
Religion also plays an imperative role in our understanding and sensitivity to the roots of Malawi’s homophobia. Malawi is a highly religious country where Christianity has a huge presence. Other sects include Anglicans, Baptists, and the Church of Central African Presbyterians. With such intense religious beliefs embedded into the cultures of nations like Malawi, the doctrine is to view homosexuality negatively and to regard it as a sin and trying to change these attitudes to become more tolerant of sexual orientation is an almost impossible task. For example, in Uganda earlier this month, where they have recently proposed a law for the death penalty for homosexuals, a pastor in Kampala vocally launched an invective against homosexuality. Pastors are one of the most sought-after positions in places like Uganda and vocal homophobia is being used as some kind of a way of drumming up membership into churches.
Ironically stigmatizing and punishing gays and lesbians will only push homosexuality underground, which instead of proactively helping the fight against HIV in Malawi it is likely to worsen the situation. As the UN’s High Commissioner pointed out: “Malawi’s decision will inevitably drive same-sex couples underground, and if this trend continues and spreads, not only will it mark a major setback to civil liberties, it could have a disastrous effect on the fight against HIV/AIDS”.
With such inherent political, historical and cultural doctrines regarding sexual orientation entrenched into societies like Malawi and Uganda, it comes as little surprise when news about a gay couple receiving a 14 year prison sentence is reported, and rally around the western world causing shock, anger and disbelief. Although it is unfortunate that many of these reports have a misunderstanding or are unaware of the role both the west, religion, history and politics have played in rooting such intense homophobia.
Therefore, the UN faces a huge challenge in getting Mr. Steven Monjeza’s and Mr. Tiwonge Chimbalanga’s sentence quashed and perhaps an even greater challenge in seeing such laws reformed. Essentially attitudes need to change and trying to change intransigent attitudes is extremely difficult. Although the good news is, despite Ms. Navi Pillay’s concerns that similar laws regarding sexual orientation may be ‘replicated around the world’ is unlikely, as it is in societies where homophobia has been stamped onto culture for centuries, where such discrimination and prejudice in the eyes of the law will survive. One thing is for sure, Mr. Ban Ki-moon has a complicated and ‘delicate’ challenge ahead of him this weekend when he meets the Malawian president, Mr. Bingu wa Mutharika.
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